Why You Can Thank Medieval Nominalism for Your Modern Neuroses
Your problems aren’t just your problems, and they won’t be solved overnight, for they were a millennium in the making. In the eleventh century, Christians began quarreling over the nature of the Eucharist, whether it was “real” or “only symbolic,” presupposing (wrongly) that reality and symbols are irreconcilable opposites. The mis-framing of this question into a false dichotomy was one example (among many) of the ways in which the tensions present in Western Christianity began pulling apart at the seams. We began to lose the symbolic synthesis between heaven and earth, law and grace, mind and body, faith and works, natural and supernatural, subject and object. The offspring of this split were innumerable and endlessly fracturing, enantiodromia writ large across cultures and centuries: the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, Deism, Atheism, Darwinism, Fundamentalism, the Nietszchian will to power, Modernism and Postmodernism—round and round we go (just keep adding “-isms” to the merry-go-round).
We no longer encounter the world as an icon of heaven, shining with theophanies, speaking to us through beauty, woven together by sacraments, patterned like a liturgy, a place for everything and everything in its place. The “medieval synthesis,” as C.S. Lewis called it, “involved the whole organization of their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental model of the universe.” Despite its power and beauty, this model had the unfortunate fate of not being true (or at least, not true enough). The symbolic thread of this synthesis was cut by Ockham’s razor—by the philosophy of nominalism which considered universal patterns to have existence only in our minds as abstractions (if that), but certainly not in the “real world.” We used to participate in the purposeful patterns and universal natures intrinsic to all things in the world as heavenly symbols, but in a nominalist worldview we impose names upon whatever it is we think we see. Each object then becomes an isolated sliver of reality, without an essential connection to anything else (except in our imaginations). This makes the world fundamentally arbitrary, a product of divine will, a “dead object of God’s creative whim” (Timothy Patitsas).
As nominalism gradually worked its way through European thought, the ancient and medieval world died, and the assumed meaningfulness of man’s life died with it. We are all now the walking dead, a “mere ant heap of individuals,” as Jung called us. It’s hard to make the case that this fractured world devoid of transcendence and intrinsic connectedness is somehow “truer” than the holistic one (though it’s certainly uglier). We gained power, but lost our purpose; we gained freedom, but lost the feeling of being at home in the world. As went the macrocosm of human history, so goes the microcosm of the individual human psyche. No wonder it’s so hard for us to hold our inner opposites in tension: we’re swimming upstream against the centuries.
Carl Jung was in some sense a secular prophet announcing the depth of this crisis, this rupture between the realms of meaning and matter. “Man is in need of a symbolic life—badly in need,” Jung remarked. “And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill—this awful, grinding, banal life in which they are ‘nothing but,’” he lamented. “No wonder people get neurotic.” The psychologically wounded lined up outside his office like lost sheep, seeking help, wholeness, and meaning. Jung saw his work of psychoanalysis as a surrogate for the loss of religion, liturgy, and symbolism in the West. The majority of his patients were post-Protestants who had lost their faith. He helped them reconnect with their unconscious selves, access symbols that enabled them to change, and reconnected them with their own human nature. This reduced their suffering and increased their sense of meaning in life. Therapy stepped in where sacramental liturgy waned.
When large swaths of the church in America have been reduced to “four bare walls and a sermon,” this leaves plenty for the conscious mind to think about, but little for the body to do, or for the unconscious to experience. Jung said that every religion makes use of two feet—faith and ritual—but Protestantism’s zeal for the first commandment often means that it has only one leg left. Jung’s ability to alleviate psychological suffering ought to intrigue iconoclastic denominations, for he was (quite self-consciously) picking up their slack, giving Protestants a second leg to stand on.
Jung admitted that his healthiest patients were those church-goers who were still immersed in the beauty of a liturgy thick with symbols and rituals. Their sacramental experiences in confession and communion nudged them toward psychological health with little conscious effort on their part. “Even in this day and age,” he wrote, “the believer has the opportunity, in his church, to live the ‘symbolic life’”, which integrates our inner contradictions, and the riddle of our mortal sufferings and sins, with the love of God. Therapy isn’t church—and Jung is no Savior—but he recognized the human need for wholeness, and he tried to help people attain it. While for some Christians, Jung may appear as a gateway to the occult or the New Age (a legitimate risk), he is just as likely to prove a gateway to traditional, sacramental Christian worship, and to the Neoplatonic heritage of the early church.
Jung is less an innovator than an archeologist: his seeming “discovery” of the unconscious is actually as old as the patristics’ “way of the heart”; his archetypal patterns are as old as Plato. He knew symbols weren’t arbitrary signs or empty shells, but rather the highest reality and the means of our transformation from fractured multiplicity into unity, from polarization into something more like love.
Only symbols have the power to re-tie that severed thread which connected our world to the heavens. It is only in beholding Beauty that we become beautiful, good, and true (Timothy Patitsas). The symbols of beauty that live in art, rituals, liturgies, dreams, music, stories, parables, sacred spaces, fasts and feasts, and especially in sacraments, enable us to immerse our whole selves in grace. They recalibrate us “behind the scenes” of our conscious minds, kindling our desire for God. Beauty in all these forms weaves our ill-matched threads and unconscious fragments into a single cloth, into a whole and holy self.
Symbols and Sacraments of Reconciliation: Re-tying the Severed Thread
The Eucharist is the ultimate symbol of this reconciliation, embodying that sacramental union of opposites in which the infinite God dies for the life of the world—”by His wounds we are healed.” From the highest of the high heavens, to the lowest of the low in His descent into hell, Christ is both the Center and the one who goes to the outer edges, filling up the cosmos to its extremities. He is the Holy One who dies for our sins, the King who is humiliated as a criminal, uniting in Himself God and man, life and death, sorrow and joy, Alpha and Omega. He who was led like a lamb to the slaughter dances on the broken gates of Hades as He empties it, defeating death, thus “[reconciling] to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
How else could we love and forgive ourselves, how else could we integrate our fragments into wholeness, than through this reconciliation in Christ? What else besides the cross has such cosmic scope and gravity? What other image gathers “all things” into itself like the crucified and resurrected Christ? According to Eastern Orthodox icon carver Jonathan Pageau, “Christ joins together all the opposites,” for He is the crux, the point where the narrative world of symbols and the objective world intersect—He is the incarnation of God, the True Myth. This is why He sums up everything in Himself, and “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) remake the medieval model of the world, and yet their one shining insight—that Christ the God-Man is the key to holding the cosmos together—is indispensable. While the world no longer circles around the incarnate Christ, we are still free to re-enter His orbit, to let His gravity reconcile, re-define, and redeem us.
It is indeed a terrible shock to meet ourselves, to become acquainted with the depths of potential we have for both good and evil, and the grave responsibility this places upon us. Who could bear it without simultaneously being borne by Christ? Only Christ can turn our shame into glory. There is only one thing deeper than the abyss of the human unconscious—only one thing stronger than the forces that rip us apart—and that is the Love of God.
The truth is that we will encounter our unconscious selves in one way or another, no matter how hard we try to avoid it, for “whatever is rejected from the self, appears in the world as an event,” as Jung observed. Perhaps such an “event” is already blocking your path; perhaps the unconscious is even now gripping your ankle, disturbing your dreams, or poking you in the axioms. As my opening dream depicted, it’s better to face ourselves head on, to meet ourselves voluntarily, than to run away and let the shadows hunt us down, upending our lives in a bid for the attention we owe them. If we make the choice to move toward our unconscious selves instead of fleeing from them, and if we can remember the Gospel of reconciliation—that “God became man that man might become god”—we might just begin to grow and glow.
Now to Him whose reach extends beyond all that we know of ourselves to hold even our mysteries, waywardness, and contradictions with kindness; to Him whose love pulls the furthest fragments into one, and who reconciles all things to Himself—to Him be glory now and forever. Amen.